One of the expressions that used to be around a lot in Christian circles and institutions was that of ‘inter-denominational’. By suggesting that an organisation sat lightly on the boundaries that existed between Christian denominations, it was trying to pretend that somehow it transcended these differences. Of course one soon learnt to realise that ‘inter-denominational’ was a code for a complete rejection for all the historical issues that exist in the Christian story in favour of what this blog would claim to be a flat, predictable evangelical form of Christianity. By claiming that evangelical Christianity was in a direct succession to the New Testament and the early church because it alone followed the letter of Scripture, the events and twists and turns of Church history could be ignored at will. In practice the conservative evangelical interpretation did hang on to some parts of Reformation history but this left the first 15 centuries to be ignored as though they had never existed. Thus the contributions of Orthodoxy, the medieval mystics and the Celtic church were airbrushed out of consideration by ‘bible-believing Christians’.
All Christian denominations exist because of the events of church history. Each denomination represented an important emphasis which stood as a witness to one part of the great panoply of Christian truth. Thus the few Anglicans who have taken the trouble to study the Methodists cannot fail to be impressed by what the Wesley brothers stood for, even if they do want to become Methodists in the 21st century.
Evangelicalism and ecumenism do not mix. The reason is that the former has very little sense of Christian history in claiming that it alone knows the ‘truth’ because it has God’s word. Ecumenism is rooted in a firm understanding that Christian history must be embraced and understood so that all that the different Christian bodies represent can be heard, understood and represented in finding an ever fuller vision of Christian truth.
Ecumenism is thus hard work and takes patience and intelligent study as well as imagination. The cliché-ridden slogans of popular evangelical rhetoric do not deliver the subtleties required for this kind of work. Here in the Anglican Diocese of Carlisle we have a conundrum which is preventing important ecumenical work proceeding because of the predominance of evangelical churchmanship in the area. Over the past 20 years this Diocese has encouraged many evangelical clergy to occupy hitherto ‘middle of the road’ parishes. Now the Diocese is finding it hard to move forward with a great plan for working more closely with the United Reformed Church and the Methodist to form mission areas. A predictable resistance is being found on both sides. It is hardly surprising to find that an evangelical clergyman rooted in the Bible finds it hard to understand the subtleties of difference with their Methodist brethren. The feeling is mutual. I do not know what is going on at the other end of the Diocese but things do not look good around here. And yet it was all so predictable …….